Book 7: The Black Island (1938)
Though it falls apart in its “third act” this is a faierly enjoyable Tintin adventure, and remains a personal favourite of mine for a few reasons. It swiftly introduces some peril, I mean Tintin gets shot in the first page! That’s how you hook a reader and these early stages are quite thrilling. While getting too close to a heinous conspiracy Tintin gets framed for attacking a man on a train leaving him in the custody of Thompson and Thomson, again acting as antagonists here. These early adventures often cast the bumbling twins in this role and while it works remarkably well here it was in danger of becoming a crutch narratively for the characters. I’m glad it was pretty much abandoned as the series continued and why it works here is that you can see their dislike of having to hold Tintin but the evidence is overwhelmingly against him. The reticence over having to do their duty offers a subtle shading to their characters here. Obviously they are in the wrong and are used as an obstacle for the hero but it’s done in a natural way and they provide ample comic relief throughout with their ineffectual pursuit.
The Black Island is also famous for introducing a new villain in the form of Doctor J. W. Müller (his look being quite distinct here from his later subsequent appearances which confused me as a kid). A criminal who can use his position to have people committed always sturck me as a particularly horrible act and it seems to be something Müller has done more than once. This album has great energy and pace and only comes undone when Tintin reaches a slightly stereotypical Scotland (though far from the crass depictions of other cultures in earlier adventures) and the titular Black Island itself proves a disappointment as the story descends into a lazy farce involving a Gorilla. This pilfering of King Kong was certainly topical at the time of publishing but comes across to modern readers as a little slapdash which is a shame as the tension dissipates at the conclusion. Still for three-thirds of its tale this is a rollicking good read.
Book 8: King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1939)
Having a fictional country freed up Herge to comment on politics and be satirical and there is a hint of that in this edition. All the backroom conspiracies and turncoats really do mount up and it feels like there’s two countries against our hero at some points. Throw in villains impersonating scientists and you really do have a busy but fun romp. It becomes a bit stretched in its later sections a mountain pursuit taking on some ridiculous moments but there’s a lot of good stuff going on here. Tintin works well in a tight mystery brimming with intirgue and here we get that in spades with a spin on the classic “locked room mystery” concept allowing Herge to spin a mildly complex tale.
It’s all good fun but it is becoming increasingly clear that Tintin needs someone to bounce off other than a smarter than average canine companion. One gets the feeling that story possibilities are being limited by the lack of strong supporting characters but as a straight ahead mystery peppered with some subversive swipes at political instability this does the job effectively. Like a lot of Tintin books I’ve noticed on re-reading the denouements can leave their initial starting points down. Still though this doesn’t hamper an otherwise engaging volume.
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